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Maria Rice

Maria Rice
Hometown: Wakefield, Rhode Island
Major: Natural Resource Economics & Commerce

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Lan Diep

Lan Diep

Legal Fellow, Mississippi Center for Justice
Area of Practice: Gulf Oil Disaster Relief Team
Year Graduated: 2010

It's unusual for a young law graduate to find his niche immediately in the legal world, but that's just what Lan Diep, '10, made happen by following his instincts.

He is already making a difference for an underserved community dealing with the complexities of the American justice system. For efforts first recognized in The New York Times, he was honored by the White House Champions of Change program. Diep's tale began a year ago. The Mississippi Center for Justice was looking for help reaching out to the Vietnamese fishing community after the huge 2010 BP oil spill. Despite a "requirement" of five years' experience, Diep applied for — and got — the job. "I knew I didn't have the experience, not even close, but I had the interest and the language skill, and I was willing to relocate."

Diep won an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellowship to fund his work. He moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, and began to delve into the legal complexities facing people who had lost their livelihoods because of the spill. The federal government had set up a multi-billion dollar Gulf Coast Claims Facility designed to get money into people's pockets so they could save their boats and their homes. But not all of the money was getting through a bureaucracy undermined by unscrupulous lawyers who had "signed up" many claimants who could not speak or understand English well.

A native Vietnamese speaker, Diep visited a contractor whose job was to sign up people for a law firm, not letting on that he spoke English. After he listened to the man's phony pitch, Diep alerted the proper authorities then took it upon himself to educate many of the baffled fishermen who were signing their claim rights away to a third party. "So many didn't realize they were being tricked into signing binding legal agreements," he said. "I had to do something to help."

Diep does his best to assist the fishermen in their written communications with the claims office. His office fields hundreds of calls daily and he's become the go-to guy for many in the Vietnamese community. He also has started writing a monthly newsletter in Vietnamese explaining new rules and procedures in the federal claims program.

"I've been involved with the Vietnamese community everywhere I have lived in the past" saiad Diep, who grew up in Houston and the San Francisco area. "This has been a very rewarding experience, and I've been proud to tell clients, reporters and White House staffers that I have a law degree from McGeorge."

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